'RRR' Is the Blockbuster of the Summer, but Mind Its Dicey Politics
Western audiences are eating up the thrilling Indian epic, but are missing the film's modern political context.
Few filmmakers understand the quality of frenzy better than the Indian filmmaker S.S. Rajamouli. In the summer of 2009, impassioned moviegoers in Vizianagaram, India, climbed up the parapet wall of a booking counter and brought down an electric pole. They were attempting to acquire tickets for Rajamouli’s Magadheera, a Telugu-language action-fantasy. Five people died in the ensuing stampede.
"Frenzy" is a word that repeatedly comes to mind when one watches RRR, Rajamouli's new film that's been steadily gaining hype worldwide. The high-octane historical fiction drama is India’s most expensive film—₹5.5 billion, which equates to over $70 million—and set box office tills on fire when it was released earlier this year. In the city of Hyderabad, fans bathed posters of the film and giant cutouts of the movie’s lead actors in milk, a practice generally reserved for Hindu deities and massively popular South Indian celebrities.
Set in 1920 British occupied India, RRR centers on fictionalized versions of two real historical Indian revolutionaries. Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.), a tribal man from the forest-dwelling Gond community, is in Delhi to rescue Malli, a young girl with a euphonious voice who is held captive in the British governor’s own residence. A. Rama Raju (Ram Charan) is a police officer with the British Army who seems to have little concern about inflicting violence on his own countrymen and has been employed for the purpose of finding Bheem. A train crash and the rescue of a young fisher boy brings the men into each other’s orbits. A bromance builds while neither man knows the other’s true background or mission. By the third hour, however, brawn and bros come together and vanquish a bevy of mustache-twirling British villains through a series of spectacularly choreographed action set pieces and dance moves.
Over the past two years, Rajamouli, a director and screenwriter often compared to James Cameron, has become synonymous with epic filmmaking in India. The sequel in his action-adventure Baahubali duology is the biggest blockbuster in India, grossing over ₹14.3 billion (around $184 million), almost thrice the next highest film on the list. While Indian cinema is largely associated with Bollywood in the West, India’s moviegoing audiences are heterogeneous, stratified across innumerous linguistic and cultural groups. Rajamouli, who belongs to the Telugu film industry, colloquially referred to as Tollywood, has become the rare Indian filmmaker to craft the pan-Indian blockbuster. RRR was released in five different language versions in India and became a success in each one of them.
The frenzy of the mythic and the emotional electrifies every corner of Rajamouli’s works. Heroic, muscular men avenge their dead fathers and are reincarnated as princes, as in Maghadheera, or even flies, like in Eega. The emotional bombast of its world bursts onto the screen through spectacularly colorful sets and masterfully choreographed action sequences. RRR is rousing, exemplifying the pleasures of Telugu blockbusters on steroids. Heroes accomplish acrobatic feats worthy of Olympians. Motorbikes are brandished as weapons. Tigers are fought with bare hands. In the vein of many Indian buddy action films, the muscular heroes save their tenderness and googly eyes for each other. In one fight scene, Ram straddles Bheem’s thigh. RRR doesn’t pass the Bechdel test but I doubt Alison Bechdel accounted for a movie where a man jumps out of a cage with a cadre of wild animals in slow motion onto a crowd of colonial officials.
Unsurprisingly, RRR has become the rare Indian film to attract Western audiences. A one-day screening across America was such a success that the IFC Center in New York noted that it is going to screen RRR once a day. For two weeks in a row it has been the most popular non-English film on Netflix. Twitter is full of viral tweets from audiences not usually accustomed to Indian films praising it. One says, "RRR is the greatest action film I’ve ever seen." Another notes that an audience member compared its viewing experience to seeing the Lumière Brothers’ 50-second short of a train pulling into the station. Legacy publications like The New Yorker and The Atlantic have called the film a "political screed" and "maximalist poetry" commending the movie for both its anti-colonial vision and mythic visuals.
They aren’t wrong. Meaning-making when it comes to cinema, after all, can vary considerably. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which popularized the wuxia film among Western audiences, was seen as slow-paced and Western among Chinese audiences. What Western audiences will likely miss underneath RRR’s visual lucidity are the troubling ideological underpinnings of Hindu nationalism.
The first major film genre in India was the devotional film, which put gods on screen and encouraged viewing as an act of veneration. In his book Seeing is Believing, Indian film critic Chindananda Das Gupta estimated that 70% of the films made before 1923 in India fell into this genre. Even a century later, grandiose religiosity powers its biggest hits like RRR. In one breathtaking moment in the film, British police officers in a tenebrous forest hunt for Ram who has just escaped from a prison with Bheem. As a giant flashlight illuminates a figure in the distance, a silhouette of a long-haired man wielding a bow and arrow appears. Every Indian viewer will be unmistakably familiar with this mythic image, meant to represent Prince Ram, the Hindu embodiment of virtue and courage. The Ramayana, an Odyssean tale of a banished prince who crosses the sea with a band of monkeys to rescue Princess Sita, is one of two paramount texts in Hinduism. The utopia of a Ramrajya, a kingdom of Ram, galvanizes the political agenda of the Indian ruling party—the BJP—which in the past seven years has moved India from its more secular roots into a Hindu theocracy.
Several scenes then have a slightly chilling quality to viewers living under the constant threat of Hindutva authoritarianism. When Ram’s father tells him "every hand will have a weapon," he may have well been talking about paramilitary organiZations like the RSS which have made militarizing Hindus a key part of their agenda. In the movie’s final uplifting song extolling the virtues of nationalist struggles, several freedom fighters from the Indian independence movement are referenced. Yet three of the biggest names are conspicuously missing: Gandhi, whose secular and nonviolent Hinduism was at odds with the BJP’s and was murdered by a right-wing Hindu ideologue; Ambedkar, a member of the formerly untouchable castes instrumental in leading mass protests against the caste system and father of the Indian constitution; and Nehru, India’s first prime minister whose image Narendra Modi, the current prime minister, is in a one-sided battle to topple.
In 1992, a violent mob of Hindu ideologues including several BJP leaders stormed the 16th century mosque Babri Masjid, purportedly laid over the birthplace of Ram and demolished it. In the decade prior, a wildly popular television show based on the Ramayana played a key role in the culture of Hindu revivalism. With its serialized structure and blend of folk elements and Bollywood sensibilities, Ramayan which ran from 1987-1988 drew millions of television viewers to enthusiastically engage with it.
Cinematic effect in films like RRR is seductive then. The very aesthetics that allow RRR to travel across the world concretizes narrow visions of Hindu identity and imagery. There are multiple videos on Youtube of Indian audiences cheering in response to the overt Hindu imagery. Thousands of miles away in California, Ram and Bheem’s daredevilry is rousing similar reactions among American audiences. But one must be wary of these spirited reactions: Hoots and hollers can very easily give way to the frenzy of the mob.